Calcite crystals are trigonal-rhombohedral, though actual calcite rhombohedra are rare as natural crystals. However, they show a remarkable variety of habits including acute to obtuse rhombohedra, tabular forms, prisms, or various scalenohedra. Calcite exhibits several twinning types adding to the variety of observed forms. It may occur as fibrous, granular, lamellar, or compact. Cleavage is usually in three directions parallel to the rhombohedron form. Its fracture is conchoidal, but difficult to obtain.
It has a defining Mohs hardness of 3, a specific gravity of 2.71, and its luster is vitreous in crystallized varieties. Color is white or none, though shades of gray, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, brown, or even black can occur when the mineral is charged with impurities.
Calcite is transparent to opaque and may occasionally show phosphorescence or fluorescence. A transparent variety called Iceland spar is used for optical purposes. Acute scalenohedral crystals are sometimes referred to as “dogtooth spar” while the rhombohedral form is sometimes referred to as “nailhead spar”.
Single calcite crystals display an optical property called birefringence (double refraction). This strong birefringence causes objects viewed through a clear piece of calcite to appear doubled. The birefringent effect (using calcite) was first described by the Danish scientist Rasmus Bartholin in 1669. At a wavelength of ~590 nm calcite has ordinary and extraordinary refractive indices of 1.658 and 1.486, respectively. Between 190 and 1700 nm, the ordinary refractive index varies roughly between 1.6 and 1.4, while the extraordinary refractive index varies between 1.9 and 1.5.
Calcite, like most carbonates, will dissolve with most forms of acid. Calcite can be either dissolved by groundwater or precipitated by groundwater, depending on several factors including the water temperature, pH, and dissolved ion concentrations. Although calcite is fairly insoluble in cold water, acidity can cause dissolution of calcite and release of carbon dioxide gas. Ambient carbon dioxide, due to its acidity, has a slight solubilizing effect on calcite. Calcite exhibits an unusual characteristic called retrograde solubility in which it becomes less soluble in water as the temperature increases. When conditions are right for precipitation, calcite forms mineral coatings that cement the existing rock grains together or it can fill fractures. When conditions are right for dissolution, the removal of calcite can dramatically increase the porosity and permeability of the rock, and if it continues for a long period of time may result in the formation of caves. On a landscape scale, continued dissolution of calcium carbonate-rich rocks can lead to the expansion and eventual collapse of cave systems, resulting in various forms of karst topography.